Thursday, October 16, 2014

too big to ignore

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I was told to eat eggs by my midwife and I’m nothing if not vigilant at following instructions when it comes to food. Say what’s that you say? Midwife, Jess? Yes it’s true, there’s something in my belly that, for once, is not a burrito*. Spoiler alert: it’s a baby and we’re all feeling pretty stoked about it! I’m actually quite far along at this point- over the halfway mark at 24 weeks (or like 5-6 months in regular people speak). Baby Dickens will make his or her debut around the first week of February so let’s pray that we don’t have a 20 foot snow storm with three day power outages; because while I’m pretty burly when it comes to many things, giving birth to a baby in an unheated wood paneled basement does not sound like my idea of a good time.

*I can in no way whatsoever guarantee that at your particular reading of this blog post that I don’t also have a burrito in my belly.

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So the past few months of being lazy were totally justified- I mean. I’d say. As a white lady of a certain age, I’m pretty used to beating myself up if my day off productivity level a nice midpoint between Martha Stewart and Jesus. I like to Get Stuff Done- blog post (check), two loads of laundry (check), make chicken stock (check), teach yoga class (check), make hugely unsuccessful attempt at growing herb garden (double check). So when I found out I was pregnant the first week of June I embraced the new need for lots of down time and I felt, completely fine ignoring much of the to-do list and just chilling out when I had some time to myself. I mean shit I’m growing a human, I think that’s task enough for a Tuesday, wouldn’t you say? It’s all together very liberating and a gal could really get used to this. Especially the ignoring-the-herb-garden part, because I’m already really good at that.

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I have been hesitant to share this big news here, because well, I haven’t been here all that much. And I didn’t want to come back and be all “Sup dudes, how’s your summer? B T dubbs I’m pregnant. It's yours.” Plus, online pregnancy announcements in this age of all things baby being hyper fetishized, make me feel sort of self conscious. I think they are cute- don’t get me wrong, just not for me. I don’t get the facebook baby announcement- mostly because it’s SO MUCH MORE FUN to tell people in person. They jump up and down and hug you and scream (well the ladies do) and you get to see real joy in their faces. And some people cry! And if you’re me you also cry. Every single person you tell you cry, even an odd elderly gentleman at work who asked me in a creepy tone if I was “with child.” It’s all just so hilarious and so emotional and so real I would never want to reduce it to likes and comments of ‘congrats’ punched out on an iphone while someone is waiting for the T.

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And you know we’ve always been an in-person kind of family. So, I didn’t want to share news like this in a blog post until it was, well, too big to ignore. Which, I totally am. I already look like I ate another, smaller, weaker pregnant lady and I kind of love it. The first trimester food is not your friend because it feels a bit like a three month hangover. You want food. You just don’t know if food is going to cooperate once it’s in your possession. At 14 weeks I turned the corner though and I went from wanting toast with a side of toast to craving, hm, All The Foods. Thank god I have had the kind of pregnancy where cooking is still my favorite leisure activity. My sister and some close friends lamented that they just didn’t have it in ‘em/ were too ill or exhausted to saddle up to the stove. Whereas during my first few exhausted, nauseous weeks in the first trimester even though I didn’t feel like eating all that much the kitchen was the only place I felt normal. I hope that is always the case. Even when I have this bambino strapped to my chest and I’m accidentally splashing sauces on their little face (just kidding…I’ll be more careful than that!) So anyways, enough about the baby, back to the eggs!

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BRIOCHE ‘BENEDICT’ BREAKFAST STRATA

Softened butter for pan
8-10 small brioche rolls, or about ¾ of a loaf brioche, preferably day-old
½ lb. Canadian Bacon, diced
½ cup shredded mozzarella
¾ cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/3 cup grated parmesan
10 eggs
2 cups whole milk
1 ½ tbsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

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Slice brioche into large chunks, about 1-2 inches square-ish. In a large glass baking dish or oven-safe skillet, spread a thin layer of butter evenly on bottom and sides of pan. Set a small skillet to medium heat and brown Canadian bacon for a few minutes on each side. Dump brioche chunks into pan and in a large mixing bowl combine eggs, milk, Dijon, salt and pepper. Whisk together thoroughly and fold in approximately ¾ of the shredded cheeses (cheddar and mozzarella only), reserving parmesan and remaining shredded cheeses for later use. Scatter Canadian bacon into pan with brioche and pour egg and cheese mixture over. Squish everything down a bit so all the bread has a chance to absorb the custard. Pinch a touch more salt and pepper over the top and then scatter on reserved cheeses, including grated parmesan. Chill up to 4 hours, but preferably overnight.

Optional step: I layered a sheet of plastic wrap and two heavy dinner plates on top of my strata to weight down the top so that all the bread would saturate in custard as it chilled and there would be no dry bits.

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In the morning one hour before baking: set strata out at room temperature; remove plastic wrap and plates, if using. Set oven to preheat at 375. Cover strata loosely with tin foil and bake, checking periodically for 45-50 minutes. Remove tin foil for last 10-15 minutes of baking so it gets golden brown and crusty on top. If your strata is especially soupy- cooking time may take closer to an hour. Mine was not because my brioche was a bit stale (which is ideal) so it soaked up every bit of egg. Cooking is done when a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean and it’s golden brown on top.

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Let sit about 5-10 minutes before serving. We served this with a pot of baked beans, some fruit salad and yogurt- it was a super hearty fall brunch. I also ate the leftovers for a whole week and did not get tired of it once. It is by no means a healthy breakfast dish- it’s a total comfort dish and, aside from chilling overnight, only takes about ten minutes to prepare. Perfect for a brunch or lunch crowd and can serve at least 6 people. Or one, highly motivated pregnant lady in her second trimester.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

how to improve anything

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You know on Sunday it was 83 degrees out. And I have this killer potato salad recipe that the unseasonably warm weather made me feel like I could get away with posting. Even though you and I both know that potato salad season is pretty much officially over. But today? Today it is grey and chilly and I just spent a few delicious hours in the kitchen making stock and pumpkin muffins and a quick coconut curry sauce for tomorrow’s dinner. Today is a day for real food. Not appetizers or cookout side dishes. And it just frankly does not feel like potato salad weather. It feels like we need something savory and wholesome and I’ve got just the thing.

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This recipe is continued proof of the well-tested fact that you can improve any food in the whole world by wrapping it in prosciutto. Heck, I bet you could even make a few undesirable people in your life more appealing by wrapping them in a few slices! Boneless skinless chicken breasts are like the background music of weeknight dinners. Somehow simultaneously boring and annoying. So easy to prepare that they are hard to ignore, but often so quick to dry out that often fall far short of satisfying. However, when carefully wrapped in salty, crisped prosciutto and smothered in a savory mushroom sauce, they turn from “oh chicken?” into “oh SNAP!” in no time. This was a Sunday supper many weeks back; but if you have the time it’s relatively quick enough work for a weeknight meal.

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PROSCIUTTO WRAPPED CHICKEN with 
SHERRIED MUSHROOM PAN GRAVY

For the chicken breasts: 

3-4 chicken breasts
6 to 8 slices of thinly sliced prosciutto
Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
3 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. butter

For the pan gravy: 

1 shallot, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. button mushrooms, wiped clean and thinly sliced
1-2 tbs. butter
¾ cup cream sherry*
Chicken stock (if needed)
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Heavy cream or half and half (optional)
Salt and pepper

*for my feelings about sherry check this post

Generously salt and pepper each side of your chicken breasts; then dust both sides with parmesan cheese. Wrap one or two slices of prosciutto around the middle of each breast so that it overlaps to form a nice ‘belt’. Mmmm prosciutto belts.

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In a large skillet or braising pan, heat butter and oil over medium to medium-high heat until butter is slightly foamy but still pale yellow and pan is nice and hot. Place chicken, seal side down in pan and let cook approximately 4 minutes per side, until nicely browned and prosciutto has crisped a bit. Pull chicken from pan and set aside; it will complete cooking through in the mushroom sauce in a few moments.

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Reduce heat to medium and add another small drizzle of oil to pan, plus 1-2 tbs. butter. Sauté shallots until the translucent and fragrant (about 1-2 minutes) add garlic and mushrooms, generously salt and pepper; and stir together well to completely coat in butter and oil. Let mushrooms cook about 5-6 minutes, stirring every so often, until they have purged some liquid, browned and shrunk down a bit. Turn heat to high and pour sherry in, using a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan as the sherry reduces. Add Dijon and a few splashes of chicken stock and maybe another teaspoon of butter for good measure. Let reduce and thicken for about 3-4 minutes, then turn heat down to medium. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. If it still tastes boozy from the sherry, turn the heat back up and let reduce a little more, if you feel there is not enough liquid, splash in a bit more stock. Return chicken breasts to pan for an additional few minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into each breast reads 165 degrees. Remove chicken from pan and plate, taste mushroom sauce, season if necessary and if you choose, swirl in just a touch of half and half or cream to thicken the sauce. Pour sauce and mushrooms over chicken. Serve immediately.

Serve with thick slices of olive oil rubbed grilled foccacia bread and a green salad or vegetable dish.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

open concept

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Oh haaaaay....guess I wasn't joking about slacking off and taking advantage of summer. Second week in September and I feel like it can't possibly already be this far into fall. The good news is I have an enormous backlog of deliciousness to share with you. Like to hear about it? Here it go... I cook without rules and often without any concept whatsoever. Like most households we tend to have our standard batch of groceries that we buy each week and that gets us through at least 5 breakfasts and lunch and maybe the one or two dinners we actually get to sit down to together. And it always, always has to be supplemented by additional trips to the grocery store. Fortunately, not a big deal for me since I am financially obligated to be inside not just a grocery store but the one we primarily shop at at least 35 hours per week.

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When you have a decently stocked pantry and a few odds and ends of veggies but no particular vision, that is when kitchen creativity gets cookin. At least if you’re a geek like me. Day dreaming about the contents of your fridge and attempting to make a whole meal of food out of them is one of my most favorite hobbies and it’s also the kind of free association thinking that creates such Benson family favorites as Potato Tacos or my most coveted Transcendental Burritos and pretty much any easy pasta dish that I’ve had cause to cook up in the past decade. One such invention that has been on recent rotation is this here. An amalgam of components that we have dubbed “Yummy Bowls” because basically, well, they come in a bowl and they are yummy. It’s not that deep.

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More a loose framework than an actual recipe this is one of my favorite things to make for lunch on a day off, or for a quick, but filling and healthy supper, or what I make for lunch when a vegan comes over (hi Ashley!). It ends up being a mish mash of whatever produce I have around, over a bed of starch (rice, cous cous or even farro) and always either some go-to crispy baked tofu or this here delicious and fast marinated grilled tofu. This preparation does everything I want a proper recipe to do to tofu- infuses it with mouth watering flavor and gives it an appealing texture – crispy on the outside, tender within. We like to garnish these with a dollop of hummus, some Sriracha and a sunny side up egg (but of course not when the vegans are coming). It’s super filling and pretty virtuous, so I don’t even feel bad when I eat a  half whole entire caramel filled chocolate bar after dinner. If I make this for myself for lunch, I have enough leftover to make myself a smaller Yummy Bowl the next day as leftovers. If I make it for myself and someone else, we usually house it all. It’s healthy after all and there’s only so much virtue to go around.

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YUMMY BOWLS (we're working on the trademark for this and Potato Tacos)

White or brown rice, prepared according to package directions
Grilled Marinated Tofu
Easy Baked Sweet Potatoes
Sauteed Mushrooms
Sauteed Spinach, Peas and Red Onion
2 Eggs, poached or sunny side up

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GRILLED MARINATED TOFU

2 scallions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp. grated ginger
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup olive oil
2 tsp. honey
A few shakes rice vinegar
1-2 squeezes Sriracha or other hot sauce
1 package extra firm tofu, pressed, drained and sliced

To press and drain tofu: remove from packaging and place in a shallow bowl or on a plate with a bit of depth. Stack 1 or 2 plates on top and weight with two cans, or something equally heavy. Let press for 15-20 minutes before draining off excess water and slicing. This is a serious pro tip for getting a nice texture out of your tofu- even though it takes extra prep time I never skip this step.

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While the tofu is pressing, prepare your marinade in a large Ziploc bag. Combine all ingredients and squish together gently to combine. Once the tofu is pressed and sliced, add to bag, squeezing out extra air as you close and set to marinate in the fridge. 30 minutes, or up to overnight.

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Heat grill to medium heat. Pour olive or canola oil onto a paper towel and using tongs, grease the grates of your grill. Place tofu on grill and cook, about 3-5 minutes on each side, flipping once. It may still stick a bit, becase there is no fat in the actual tofu itself. I simply jimmied it off with a nice sharp spatula and made sure to regrease the grill with a little bit more oil before flipping to the second side. Remove and enjoy, either in yummy bowls or as a salad topping or simply a quick, high protein snack.

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EASY BAKED SWEET POTATOES 

1-2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

You can’t get much easier than this. Peel and cube potatoes and toss with a drizzle of oil, a healthy pinch of salt and a few cranks of pepper. Roast at 400 for 30-40 minutes or until tender, tossing at least once. These are always a delicious easy side dish or nice salad topper.

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SAUTEED MUSHROOMS

1 bunch button or cremini mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp cloth
Olive oil
Butter
Salt, pepper

Stop me if I’m insulting your intelligence at any point..every component here is dead simple, but I also like to really follow through on the directions. These mushrooms, like the sweet potatoes and most other components of the Yummy Bowls are super easy, work as a simple side dish and require little more than trimming and chopping. Heat equal parts butter and olive oil in a skillet over medium heat (about 1 ½ tsp. of each depending on how many mushrooms you’re cooking). Add mushrooms and a sprinkle of salt. Let brown, turning every so often until they have purged their liquid and darkened in color, about 8-10 minutes. Season again with salt and black pepper.

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SAUTEED SPINACH, PEAS and RED ONION

1 bunch baby spinach leaves
½ red onion, thinly sliced
¼ - ½ bag frozen sweet peas
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

This component is totally the result of what I had on hand, if that wasn’t obvious already. Once the mushrooms were cooked, I wiped out the same skillet, heated up a bit more olive oil and sautéed first the onion, then spinach and peas until everything was cooked through nicely. Plenty of salt and pepper for flavor and we’ve got ourselves a pretty packed, nice looking Yummy Bowl situation.

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EGGS and RICE I’m not going to tell you how the poach/fry an egg or make rice. We all have limits and I think I crossed mine with the spinach instructions.

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Layer all components in a big ass bowl, with the egg on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and maybe season a bit with hot sauce, Sriracha or any sauce you’re into. Salt and pepper over the top, slice into the egg so the yolk runs down over everything and….you see we don’t call it a Yummy Bowl for nothing.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

all that matters

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Sorry for being such a slacker lately. I would love to breezily post recipes and stories every single week like clockwork but you see, the only one in charge of my schedule is me. And I have proven myself time and time again to be unmanageable. It’s not that my heart isn’t here; it is. It’s just that my body is usually at the beach- and I don’t have a much better excuse than that. I take leisure time in the summer extraordinarily seriously. Massachusetts in the summer is glorious, absolutely glorious. It’s also quite dreamy through September and parts of October. And then somewhere around the first of November it goes downhill and the rest of the year is spent in hibernation with many pots of soup and bottles of red wine. So when summer comes round, on my days off when I would normally check lots of pertinent tasks off my to-do list, including maintaining this here blog, I instead feel zero obligations and I park my ass at the beach with a meatball sub, because, apparently, shame is not an emotion that I feel and because I take summer very, very seriously.

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The crown jewel of summer always has been the 4th of July. For as long as I can remember, my family would gather together at my aunt and uncle’s house by the beach (where Paul and I lived last summer while we were preparing to buy our house) It was (big sigh) the greatest house ever. Screened in porch, large, partially shaded yard, ample parking, and a slow, easy shuffle down to a beautiful New England beach. It was the perfect place for 4th of July. We spent the day pruning up our fingers in the Atlantic, the afternoon drinking a few too many watermelon margaritas on the porch and the evening eating a big fat 4th of July feast. At some point my aunts would sing ‘Grand Old Flag’ at the top of their lungs, sometimes marching, with flags and hats, mostly fueled by Chardonnay. It was a good place to be.

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So at the end of last summer when Linda and Eric finally sold their house on Grasshopper Lane, we were all a bit verclempt. As expected. This is the first summer in my life I haven’t had a direct blood relative with free beach parking access- so you can imagine it’s been a pretty tough adjustment for me. I’ve lived a charmed life in terms of access to beaches and that, my friends, is a difficult thing to bid adieu. So this year, as the 4th loomed and the nostalgia of perfect family holidays danced in the memories, I decided that we simply had to get together. Even if it was in a landlocked cul-de-sac closer to the city than any coastal breezes. I’d buy squirt guns and water balloons and the food would be just as good and the company same as always and it would be great. And you know what? It was.

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What you realize as you grow up and places you are very attached to get sold to new families, like the house you grew up in, your grandmother’s digs, or the family beach house is that as sad as it is to close those doors for the final time, no four walls can define a family’s joy. The happiness of being together, sharing food, laughter, good news and a little too much wine simply cannot be limited to any particular location. What we share is beyond limitation, geographic or otherwise. And it always helps that our food is the MOST bomb around. So this July we had Uncle Billy hitch his smoker to a trailer and drive it over to our side yard. And we had smoked almonds and hotdogs with three different sauces. And then a few perfectly smoked pork butts were pulled and sliced, piled on homemade brioche rolls and slathered with not one, but four different homemade barbeque sauces. We had baked beans and two types of slaw and lobster salad so fresh you could still taste the ocean water. But most of all we had each other and we all know that’s all that really matters.

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BARBEQUE BAKED BEANS 
(adapted, just barely, from Pioneer Woman)

6 slices bacon, cut into 1” pieces
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1/2 medium green pepper, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Bourbon (optional)
3 large cans (28 oz.) pork and beans
3/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

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Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large Dutch oven or deep skillet, fry bacon over medium-high heat until partially cooked and about ¼ cup drippings have released. Scoop out bacon and set on paper towels to drain. Reduce heat to medium, add onion, green pepper and jalapeno to the pan and sauté until tender and fragrant; about 5 minutes. If using Worcestershire and bourbon (I use Makers), raise the heat to medium-high/ high and sprinkle in a few generous drizzles of Worcestershire to deglaze the pan with it. Then, repeat with bourbon. Pour in a scant ¼ cup, crank heat to high and use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pan.

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Reduce heat to medium and add all three cans of beans and remaining ingredients, stirring to thoroughly combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Since I was a bit generous with the vinegar and Worcestershire, my beans were a bit tangy at this stage. Which I wanted because I knew the whole mixture would sweeten substantially as it baked- keep this in mind. Let beans simmer a few minutes and then transfer the whole pot to the oven. If your skillet is too big to fit you can pour the beans into a 13x9 inch baking dish. Top the beans with the reserved bacon and bake until bubbly and bacon is crisped, about 2 hours.

To make ahead: I made my beans two days prior to my BBQ. I baked them for one hour then let the whole pan cool. Store in the fridge until ready to serve and either bring up to heat in a 325 degree oven for an additional hour; or, on the stove top, covered, over low heat for one hour.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

skills

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I consider myself fairly skilled at some things, others not-so-much. I can pull together a decent meal, I’m really good at making sandwiches and I’d like to think I’m a pretty approachable source to help you pick out an interesting, but inexpensive wine. I’m also quite clear about those things where my particular skill set falls short: any feat of athleticism, catching a ball, throwing a ball, running without complaining, being patient when I’m hungry and putting clean laundry away. Fortunately, in some aspects my mate fills in where I fall short. He’s smart and organized around the house and thorough where I am often slapdash, but together we are truly good at one thing and that thing is Sundays.

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For many years when I was in the restaurant business, I worked every Sunday morning. First on the floor, pouring coffee and doling out pancakes and then later behind the bar, where I mastered making a 2 gallon jar of Bloody Mary mix in less than 5 minutes flat and learned to pour a mimosa in my sleep. So a few years back when I made the shift from the 9-5 world to retail, I knew working weekends would be in the cards. But I set out, in my initial interview, that this woman will not work Sundays. You can take your time and a half; Sundays are sacred to the core. And we Bensons are super good at them. I prefer to have zero social plans, so we can meander through the day unfettered. We like to make breakfast and linger over way too many cups of coffee, with some music on and have a long conversation. Often times we have our most important conversations on Sunday mornings, because it’s that time when we reconnect and get that sense that can sometimes get lost in the chaos of the week, that we are, in fact, in this together.

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Half way through the day on Sunday, I’ll often call someone up to come over for dinner, whether it be Paul’s folks, my mom, our friend Shane, or my dad. Often, if my mom is coming back up from the Cape, I’ll tell her to grab some littlenecks and fish and we’ll make a supper out of her hauls. Steaming the littlenecks in a simple situation of shallots, garlic and white wine; serving the whole steaming pot with a few grilled slices of bread or some chunky Ciabatta. Fish and seafood in general, when you’re lucky enough to be from Massachusetts, where fresh, local catch is often abundant, is best not messed with. So I dress the cod with a sprinkle of salt, a hefty sifting of Old Bay, a squeeze of lemon and a few pats of butter and toss it in the oven to bake. A simple main dish and two sides, a classic Sunday supper and a chance to be with friends and family. This is what I live for, this is what it’s all about. A few Sundays back this particular salad was a perfect late spring side for a simple, delicious fish dinner. I told you I’m good at this.

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SHAVED BRUSSELS SPROUT SALAD 
with BACON, ALMONDS and PECORINO 

1-2 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and very thinly sliced
3-4 slices bacon
½ cup raw almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
½ cup grated Pecorino cheese

For the dressing: 

Juice of one lemon
1 tsp. reserved bacon fat
¼ cup olive oil
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. honey
Splash orange juice
Splash rice vinegar
Salt and pepper

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Set bacon in a cold skillet over medium-high heat. Brown thoroughly, remove and drain on paper towels. Reserve one teaspoon of the warm bacon grease. Crumble cooled bacon into bits, set aside. While the bacon browns, prep the sprouts: trim the tough ends off your sprouts, then peel off the outer leaves. Slice in half and place cut side down on a cutting board; use a super sharp knife to thinly shave the sprouts into tiny ribbons. Place in salad bowl and sprinkle with a touch of salt and pepper.

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Toast almonds in a low oven or over low heat in a small nonstick pan until fragrant. Coarsely chop and add to bowl with shaved sprouts. Use a microplane or fine grater to grate Pecorino into bowl and add bacon bits.

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For the dressing: combine all ingredients in a jar and using an immersion blender, emulsify; or, clamp the lid on the jar and shake like crazy to combine. Pour about half the dressing over salad, toss together and let sit in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Before serving, toss in a bit more dressing and serve with the remainder of dressing on the side.

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This salad, like most slaws (which it resembles closely), really does well to soak up the dressing for a bit. The end result is really unique- a little salty and decadent thanks to the bacon and Pecorino, a touch bitter and crisp courtesy of the sprouts and overall bright and delicious, care of a terrific, simple dressing. This is also a killer salad for pairing wine with. In this case, we were drinking Raventos i Blanc l’Hereu- a delicious sparkling Spanish wine; but it would work with any mineral tinged white- an Albarino, a California style Sauvignon, even Muscadet. Actually, almost any white, period. A wine-friendly food- you gotta love that.

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